30.2 | Fouler Shades

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Mine, mine, mine.

It was a ballad inside replica-Ren's bones, the crooked chorus of a savage melody that flooded every molecule and thought.

Yours, yours, yours, Asteroth echoed. So take her.

Even with her face twisted in distress, Nika was hauntingly beautiful. Worthy of being devoured.

At that thought, real-Ren pierced out of the darkness and roared in protest. A monster shredded the corners of his mind, eating him away. Bite by bite, piece by piece.

It wanted blood and flesh, Nika's blood and flesh.

So he threw every ounce of inner power against it, fortifying his mental shield with the might of volcanoes, earthquakes, and howling winter winds.

But it was no match for the beast inside him.

Nika's voice was a distant bell: "Ren, what are you doing? Stop. Please."

Only then did he realize that his hips had driven forward, forcing her squirming legs to lock around his torso. One hand pinned her wrists aloft, while the other roughly grabbed her face so she didn't look away.

Ren watched in horror as it slid down her throat, as his mind flashed with visions of choking her. She must have known what he was thinking, because she bucked and writhed like a caged animal.

In a blur, he took the loose chain and drew it over her larynx. Nika went stone-still, apart from a faint tremor.

That slight indication of fear made Ren scream commands at himself: Move! Get off! Take back control!

But they were useless as replica-Ren dragged his hand across soft, warm skin, over the shirt that teased glimpses of the valley between her breasts.

When his tongue wetted his lips, Nika whimpered, chest heaving with each labored breath. And as his pelvis ground against her own, she lifted her face to the sky and beseeched the Oldbloods for salvation.

With an unrestrained fury, real-Ren pounded against the invisible beast that had plundered his mind and hijacked his body. For a fleeting second, he reached himself again and jumped off.

Nika landed awkwardly, the chains clattering, and flattened herself against the tree trunk. They blinked at each other as relief flashed across her face.

"Ren?"

His only answer was to whirl around and find Tatiana. The witch drew a symbol onto one of the trees surrounding the clearing, then tossed the chalk away. When she held out her arms and began reciting a chant, he stepped toward her.

Blinding pain tore through him. It came from inside and surged outward. A roar of agony exploded from his mouth, and then his control shrank. He shrank. Right back down inside himself.

Look at her! Asteroth growled.

Ren obeyed the order, turning around. He marveled at a world that had seemingly been soaked in blood, at the little-bodied girl who now lurched to the side.

He slammed a foot down on the broken fetter. When it reached its limit, she flew back, crashing into him. This time, replica-Ren pulled her down into the grass, and all the while, she shoved at his chest, kicked at his shins—fighting and fighting, despite her disadvantage.

Risen over her, he pinned a bird-like arm to the ground, while the other lay across his shoulder, yanked taut by the manacle. He ate up every supple curve and fine angle. Liquid eyes, feathery lashes, and that bloodydamned mouth...

Ren studied its delicate curvature. The lips he'd imagined kissing, the tongue he wished would taste him again, the teeth he wanted marking his skin.

Closer—his body sang it. So he forced her thighs open with a knee and aligned all of himself with all of her. A hot breath, mixed with foul curses, escaped her. He tugged her golden-brown waves, and her chin lifted, yielding to him.

Taste her.

He bowed his head, inhaling that dangerous mix of smoke and jasmine. His mouth watered as he brushed his lips across the tapering jawbone.

Shaky words warmed his ear: "No. This is wrong."

It wasn't convincing, and by the color in her cheeks, Nika knew it. Satisfaction flooded into Ren's veins, and his tongue flicked out, meeting the jumping artery in her neck.

She scooted, breaking contact with his pelvis, and roared in pain as her shoulder ripped out of its socket.

With an angry snarl, Ren shadowed the movement and drove his hips harder, quivering with want. He brought his mouth to her neck again, sucking, gnawing. Claiming.

Mine, he thought.

Yours, Asteroth urged.

"This isn't what I want," Nika said.

But Ren didn't hear it above his own mutterings: "Mine, mine..."

He explored the dips and ridges of her chest. Within seconds, a damp heat bloomed, and his pants grew hard and heavy. He reached for them with one hand, unbuckling and unbuttoning.

"Ren," Nika sobbed, panic surging through her voice. She shuttered her eyes. "Please don't. I can't...you and me...if you do this, we can never..."

He watched, hungry beyond reason, as she drew her lip between her teeth and bit down—hard enough to bleed.

A deathly calm washed over him.

The fangs were out with half a thought, and Nika's eyes flew open.

"No."

He aimed for the gullet, fangs-first, but Nika raised her head and stopped him with a brush of the lips. The kiss was light, hesitant. When he tasted her blood, the trembling began, and his hips moved in desperation for the slightest semblance of relief.

As she eased back down, wriggling her arm, Ren felt a new force, bright and ancient as a star. It bade him to release her, and so he did.

He could scarcely rein in his desire as she dragged her fingers through his hair, as her mouth traveled down his jaw and neck. He closed his eyes, welcoming the darkness, but it was light that filled him instead. And lost inside that radiant glow was a familiar gaze, green and wild.

It almost sucked him in, but a phantom hand touched his heart, igniting him, mind and body. He was burning from the inside out. The fire cast its light on things he'd never seen before, on things he'd tried to forget.

It cast its light on Asteroth, who screamed and hissed and writhed. A pest drowning in flame, a parasite purged from its host. And after he fled from Ren's body, there was only smoke and silence in his wake.

With a gasp, Ren hurled away from Nika. He barely allowed himself a heartbeat to make sure she was alright before surging toward the demon-witch. Tatiana merely watched, gaping, as he charged for her.

He was an arm's length away when he felt it—the wall. It was invisible. Magical. The collision should've knocked him off his feet, but he only staggered back, assessing, then pounded the barrier with a fist.

The air rippled and shimmered in the fading sunlight. Ren threw an onslaught against it, but no matter how much he gave, he couldn't get through. All that was left to do was scream in frustration as Tatiana slowly retreated into the forest. And until she vanished completely, her gaze never once fell from Nika. 

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